After teasing this column for literal years and it sitting in my drafts half-written, I’ve decided to release it in parts—inspired by testiclesofdoom‘s series on Aerosmith. Enjoy.
What does authenticity mean in music? It’s a fine resource and a delicate commodity. It can transcend. It can be an illusion, despite coming from a very real place.
Now, what does authenticity mean in pop music? That’s an even rarer–yet more valuable–breed. It’s forever a balance between bearing one’s soul and having it be palatable for a mass audience. Smart, in-touch people have spent decades trying to manufacture it to varying degrees of success, but everyone knows there’s nothing like the real thing.
This is my story of one pop artist who has pulled it off better than anyone I’ve ever seen 1. Through her music and her actions, she has made a special connection with so many, even if her home country is small population-wise.
Maybe you saw her (briefly) during the One World: Together At Home online telecast in April 2020, or the Global Citizen online telecast last September. Quote one watcher from Greece:
Before we go any further, I have a confession to make: I’m a foreigner here. I may not be her core fanbase, I’m not even Australian, and have had only limited exposure to the media discourse over there. I could never write definitively about her (though my perfectionism and determination to finally get this thing out will certainly make me try). But I haven’t really seen anybody online really put their feelings into words about her, so here is my attempt. All I know is what I feel and what I observe. And she is all about feeling.
I’ll be talking primarily about albums because I have no first-hand context for how the singles were received.
Prologue: On Listening to One’s Heart
Delta always had dreams of stardom, despite coming from a non-musical family (though she was named after a song: Joe Cocker’s “Delta Lady”). See, she was born 2 months premature, after her mother was in a car accident while pregnant with her. To commemorate this act of survival, her father got the family a piano (more because her mother always wanted to learn to play) and…
With her mother as her first fan and manager, she made her acting debut at age 7 and after a false start with an indie was signed to Sony Music Australia at age 15 (When prompted, she said she wanted to be Olivia Newton-John; more on that later). She released a single in 2001 (technically a reworking of an Angela Vía song) that… was not very good and arguably even problematic. It was straight-ahead pop in the mold of Britney Spears/Christina Aguilara, even as that door was rapidly closing (Willa Ford, anyone?). It only peaked at #64. Looking at the single cover, it’s almost comical:
But that single did get her the attention of Channel Nine for their long-running soap Neighbours (the same show where Kylie Minogue, Natalie Imbruglia and others got their start). They retooled the new character of shy schoolgirl Nina Tucker around her, making her an aspiring singer/songwriter.
Nina was working on a new song, teased in bits and pieces. Until…
Chapter 1: Love, Light & Darkness (Innocent Eyes)
Before I share this next video, her signature song and the song that made me a fan, I want you to think back to 2002/2003. The so-called “anti-Britneys” were having a moment: Your Michelle Branches, Vanessa Carltons, Avril Lavignes… And one Missy Higgins, against whom she was seen as a rival before they found their separate lanes. Random DJ scratches hadn’t gone out of vogue yet. Just-so guitar strumming meant authenticity, even if it wasn’t coming from the face on the cover.
It was November 16th (I know because I wrote it in my journal), days away from leaving my study-abroad “Uni” in Brisbane, Australia and going back home, when I happened upon a music video browsing the campus file-sharing server:
The song had already been out for a year and her debut album had actually been released in March to–I would realize–quite a stir. But it was totally new to me. I was drawn in by the gentle piano, slow pan around a girl who seemed to be still figuring out the world and her place in it. She stands alone (like I had been feeling at the time); watch the people stream by her. There she is sitting at her soon-to-be-trademark piano (talented!), light streaming in, cross conspicuously displayed around her neck.
Then the skies part. She’s standing atop a cliff overlooking a city (not unlike one I knew in Brisbane). And she does this triumphant head-nod… in what Rolling Stone Australia called a “swag of positivity.” I was hooked.
As the scenery transitions to night via a classic Australian sunset 2, the song takes us through a fist-pumping finale showcasing her vocal talent, before ending in this soft, a-capella way way I’ve never seen another pop song do.
GIFs courtesy of Can’t Stop the Pop. Did you see that head-nod in the middle one?
…I can’t even tell you what the song meant to me anymore, or what it means to me now. It’s all so strong–overbearing, even–yet nebulous. Pretty much all I said in my journal is that its appeal was no one thing; it’s greater than the sum of its parts. So I’ll refer to this blog post written for its 17th anniversary just last year:
Delta Goodrem’s brand was (re)built on universal appeal, so where many of her peers were singing of high-school angst, heartbreak or teenage rebellion, she opted instead for a theme that everyone could relate to: the desire to be accepted and succeed.
…As pop songs go, this is very much the aural equivalent of a warm, motherly hug that gently reassures you everything’s going to be ok. Lyrically, it shies away from the harsh realities of life, instead opting for profound-but-not-really statements about life and love… But the doe-eyed innocence is exactly what makes the song work so well. There was something about Delta Goodrem and her perspective on the world that felt very “normal”.
The Rolling Stone Australia 2003 Yearbook that I had rushed to purchase before leaving (along with the special edition of her CD) summed up her appeal nicely (pretty much the only concrete words they had for her, deciding that her music & success was a known entity):
[T]his girl is onto something. It’s pop, but it’s also not. She’s too good to be true, but she’s also very real. (emphasis mine)
In fact, everything about Innocent Eyes–the sophisticated concepts, music and arrangements–and the now 19-year-old girl behind them, bears the hallmarks of a genuine artist coming into her own.
“Born To Try” was the first of 5 consecutive #1 singles (many of which went Top-5 in the UK), and the Innocent Eyes album stayed at #1 for a record 29 weeks (reaching #2 in the UK)! The album sold 1.2 million in Australia (1/4 of homes! That’s like Thriller numbers!) and another 3.3 million worldwide. But I had to research all this because it happened under my alternative-rock, Triple-J-listening radar.
Second single “Lost Without You” is heart-wrenchingly beautiful 3. I’m a sucker for the chord progressions in both of the choruses, like a double star (also heard in, for example, The Pretenders’ “Night in My Veins”–though it may be technically a pre-chorus). That and its sibling breakup ballad, 4th single “Not Me Not I”, hit you over the head with their conjured gravity (the latter especially), sounding like the soundtrack to the end of the world. But you can’t fault them. And the album’s lyrics are often clunky (“I though I’d know / What was going on / But I didn’t”, “How could something so magic, magic / Become something so tragic, tragic?”) but you can’t knock it. Brian Wilson famously described his doomed Smile project as “a teenage symphony to God” and I think Innocent Eyes falls into that category as well, just from a shy girl’s perspective. Even the “filler” tracks wouldn’t be out of place in a teen-romance.
But put all that aside for a second. For me, the album symbolize darkness–literally and figuratively. The darkness of the winter months and the darkness of isolation. Far away from the warmth and color of Queensland, Australia, far from my friends, far from my independence (back under my parents’ suburban roof) and far from my better self. Her melodrama became my melancholy. “I know that I shouldn’t be listening to this, let alone resonating with it, but I’m so low right now I can’t help it!” I thought. My journal from this period is filled with page after page of self-doubt without a word in from anyone else. Me trying to dig for a bottom to stand on, only to realize too late that there isn’t one. It was embarrassing for me to even read, let alone share.
“Running Away” was the darkest song of all for me 4 –either that or 5th and final single, “Predictable”. It isn’t even necessarily about the lyrics, it’s about the feeling. It hurt me a little to see these emotionally-deep songs made fun of at her live shows (even at the time). But like I’ve said before, can you blame her?
This is who she was at the time. And that’s who I was.
Next part: My & Delta’s paths cross again unexpectedly, and I’m given more songs to mope about in the wintertime.